8 Ralph Waldo Emerson: The American Scholar

Mr. Anirban Bhattacharyya

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Transcendentalism was a literary, religious and philosophical movement originating in New England in the mid-1830s, and remaining influential until the 1860s. The philosophy behind transcendentalism was an eclectic mix of English romanticism (especially as mediated by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle), anti-rationality, anti- Puritanism, the mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg, and aspects of Eastern philosophies. The term transcendentalism, which was actually coined by those who ridiculed the movement for its dreamy abstractions, derives from the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote of the need to transcend reason alone for a true understanding of reality.


The central beliefs of transcendentalism were in unity between nature and God, the presence of God in each individual, and the potential perfectibility of humans. These core beliefs generated others, particularly in individualism and in the self-reliance extolled by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that ‘nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’. Transcendentalism accepted Unitarianism’s most important anti-Calvinist claim, that human nature is improvable through nurture and self-culture rather than corrupt beyond hope without conversion through a special act of divine grace. Although transcendentalism was criticized for its supposed otherworldliness, it did have a strong practical element, evident in the formation of the utopian community of the Brook Farm, in its anti-institutionalism and in the dedication of many of its members to social reform.


Transcendentalism was at once a theological position, combining elements of liberal rationalism and visionary mysticism; an anti-empiricist epistemology; and an incipient form of church reform, valuing spiritual experience above religion’s institutionalized structures.


Writers who were either transcendentalists or were closely associated with the movement include Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), Emerson, Margaret Fuller (1810-50) and Henry David Thoreau.

The Text: A Detailed Critical Summary


Emerson was the first philosopher of the American spirit. Although America had won its political independence twenty-two years before he was born it still took is culture from abroad. Cooper was writing in the tradition of Scott; Washington Irving was writing in the style of Addison. Emerson lived his early life in an expansionist period when Americans  were pushing west in unprecedented numbers and acting upon the principle of democracy with considerable swagger and gusto. Complete independence in spirit as well as in fact was everywhere in the air. President Monroe had given public notice of it in his Doctrine of 1823. Clay had boldly declared: “We look too much abroad…Let us become real and true Americans”. In his 1837 essay ‘The American Scholar’ Emerson laments for America’s cultural backwardness, calls for a national literature, attempts to define the place of the scholar in a democratic and mercantile society.


Posterity remembers 31st August 1837 as a day of unblemished triumph on Emerson’s life. On that day he delivered ‘The American Scholar’ oration to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa—‘the most influential address ever made before an American college audience’. Emerson was an honorary member of the society. This lecture is called ‘commencement lecture’. It was organized by ‘Lyceum Lecture Project’.


The invitation to Emerson to give the address had itself been an afterthought. The first choice of the selection committee had been Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, a clergyman of noncontroversial reputation. On 22nd June, Wainwright asked to be relived of the commitment. Only then did Cornelius Felton, as spokesman for the committee, asked Emerson to take on the burden. Even though it meant setting aside travel plans, Emerson accepted.


Emerson begins his lecture by pointing out that the time has now come when the American people show greater independence in matters of literature. So far they had been dependent on the nations of Europe but now their long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands draws to a close.


In “The Naturalist” (1834), Emerson mentioned about America’s cultural backwardness, criticized the tendency of slavish imitation of the culture. He said:

“Imitation is the vice of over-civilized communities and the vice eminently of our times, of our literature, of our manners and social action. All American manners, language and writing are derivative. We do not write from facts but we wish to state facts after the English manner”.


In January 1836, in the conclusion of his lecture on “English Literature” he admitted the cultural backwardness of American nation. The American scholar must feel a sense of inferiority or humiliation when he realizes how little his countrymen contributed to the stock of knowledge and truth of the world.


“The American Scholar” basically deals with the role of scholar in a democratic and mercantile society. It is totally an unconventional dealing. The text offers a re-examination of several terms like ‘tradition’, ‘inspiration’, ‘thought’, and ‘action’. The text brings into focus Emerson’s self-fashioning as an orator—an orator looking at the role of an orator. A sense of self-reflexivity is being carried throughout the length of the essay.

“The American Scholar” is organized on the plan of a classical oration having three principal divisions:


a) Exordium (introduction)


b) Exhibition with several component sections or sub-sections.


c) Conclusion or peroration


The text is considered the manifesto of America’s cultural independence.

America is a poem, it needs couplets to express.


Emerson goes back to the ancient fable which tells that the gods in some ancient time Divided Man into men so that he might be more helpful to himself. According to the fable, there is One Man who appears to all particular men only partially or through one faculty. It is, therefore, necessary to study the whole society in order to find the whole man. The fable is a fantastic materialization of the idea of reification—the organic man/the complete man reduced to things, quantity or divided beings.


Emerson visualizes the scholar as a hero-poet. He designates the scholar as a ‘delegated intellect’ in terms of his social role. But for him, the ideal scholar should be ‘Man Thinking’. Emerson offers an idealized conception of scholar—representative of all mankind, which assumes a symbolic stature. He classifies the scholar under three heads: as ‘Man Thinking’ (the right state), as ‘a delegated intellect’ (professional intellectual), as mere thinker (in the degenerate state).

Stephen Witcher comments:


“In the social state the scholar is the scholar is a delegated intellect, in the right state he is man thinking; in the degenerate state he is mere thinker, or to put in a logical form, the whole class ‘scholar’ is termed ‘delegated intellect’; the sub-class ‘scholar- in-the-right-state’ is termed ‘man thinking’; the sub-class ‘scholar-in-the-degenerate state’ is termed mere thinker”.

Merton M. Slealts has observed:


“Emerson’s ‘Thinker’ is thus a see-er or in his earlier figure, a ‘watcher’, but he is more than a detached observer. By perceiving, by reflecting and by causing other men to see, he acts not merely for himself but in the service of all mankind; in the words of the lecture, ‘the great thinker thinks for all’ and all have a property in his wisdom’.


‘Man Thinking’ projects the monitory image of man, the complete man. True scholar is the true master of all things. But the scholar often goes wrong, fails to understand his real nature, and so forfeits his privileges as the true master of all things.


Emerson then proceeds to consider the various influences which operate upon his and through which he is educated. In August 1837, Emerson wrote: “the scholar must have a training by himself—the training of another age will not fit him”.


In fact, the idea of training—the arrangement or order of influences is arbitrary. His ideas discern a pattern which is equally romantic and transcendentalist. Emerson gives priority to Nature as organic knowledge; then he considers acquired knowledge and finally he deals with knowledge as it is disseminated. This idea Emerson imbibes and emulates from his earlier Nature poems of 1834, his essays on ‘Nature’, ‘Humanity and Science’ (1836). Emerson sees Nature and human mind in terms of a common spiritual source.


The question is what is Nature to the scholar?


There is neither a beginning nor an end to the mysterious continuity of this web of God; it is always circular power returning to itself. The scholar finds his own being through his relationship with nature.


But he soon can realize that nature is the opposite of his soul. The beauty of nature is the beauty of his own mind. When a spiritual light reveals the law of nature, man wishes to become the creator of Nature’s beauty. The idea has an integral link with David Hartley’s thoughts on associationism. Fredrick Schelling’s Ideas Towards the Philosophy of Nature brings out nature’s response to human intelligence. Emerson’s idea of ‘over-soul’ is also relevant here as far as the concept of ‘intellectual intuition’ is concerned.


The second great educative influence on the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the past. The mind of the past is expressed in literature, in art, in institution. Books are the best type of the influence of the past and it is necessary that this particular influence is considered in detail. Here Emerson’s attitude toward books is quite ambivalent and skeptical. He is all against book-learning and pedantry. Emerson, in fact, devalues the importance of the creative process which is more definitive of the scholar as ‘man thinking’.


He wrote: “I got thereby a vocabulary for my ideas, I got no idea’. And he further stated: “…am I yet to learn that the God dwells within? That books are but clutches, the resorts of the feeble and the lame which if used by the strong weaken the muscular power and become necessary aids”. It is not all books that the scholar must know. He says: “when he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted on other men’s transcripts of their readings”. For him, the scalars are not book-worshippers, not a self-constituted class apart from society.


The American scholar appears with the task of rearranging the thoughts of the past. It is complex process by which the scholar converts the experiences of life into truth. Once Philip Sydney told: ‘The deeper his experience, the more profound the truth’.


Truth is continually alive and re-defined according to changing time. Scholars cannot ignore the conventional, topical and the contemporary. Emerson admits the impact of Chaucer, Donne, and Marvell. Though the scholars are committed to essential and universal truth, he must consider the age and generation he belongs to. But each generation must write its own books which can be of value at the most for the next generation. Books are, for him, mere records of the ‘sacredness of the act of thought’. At this juncture of the essay, Emerson attacks academism and accepted pedagogy. The result of the worship of the book is that we get book-worm instead of man thinking. Books came to be regarded as a kind of Third Estate with the world and the soul, being the other two. The active soul should not be allowed to become the slave of ideas contained in books. The active soul sees truth, speaks truth and  also creates truth. Emerson gives the definition of ‘genius’.  He writes: ‘creation is always  the style and act of men of genius’. The urge to create is a proof of divine presence.


In his essay Religion, Emerson writes: “as there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar on wall in the soul where the effect ceases and god the cause begins’.


In the “Over-Soul” he says that ‘the union of man and God in every act of the soul is evident continuously, the simplest person who in his integrity worships God becomes God’.


There is, however, a portion of reading quite indispensible to a wise man—history and scientific disciplines.


The final influence on scholar is that of action. This section of the essay actually grows out of Emerson’s early lectures on “Art and Literature”, “The Philosophy of History”, “Discipline” and the like.


Henry Nash Smith has argued in his article “Emerson’s Problems of Vocation: A Note on ‘The American Scholar’” that the third section involves a long and confused discussion of the issue of action versus contemplation. Smith points out that Emerson’s passage on manual labor uses a vocabulary which confuses the issue by using the term ‘action’ in a new sense. What Emerson means is that action is actually first-hand experience of daily living. Thereby Emerson is trying to defend the scholar from the common contempt of the practical men or the men of action. What Emerson advocates is that the direct experience is necessary for the scholar to gain maturity. In ‘Nature’ Emerson writes: ‘the intellectual and active powers seem to succeed each other in men and the exclusive activity of the one generates the exclusive activity of the other.


It is a common opinion that the scholar is a recluse, unfit for physical activity. Emerson however considers action as subordinate but essential to that of thought. He argues that  action forms the vocabulary of the scholar when he is writing about his experiences. Action constitutes the raw material which the scholar uses for his intellectual activity. This involves a transformation of action into thought which becomes a remarkable creative endeavor for the scholar. Emerson further argues that the person who puts forth himself in fit or right actions is able to reap the richest wisdom from them. It is foolish to hinder the growth of the mind by remaining limited into closed spaces and avoiding the rest of the world. Interestingly, this linkage between thought and action, between from and contents is one characteristic feature of German transcendentalism.


Emerson here basically tries to establish the idea that form of one’s speech depends on one’s content or experience. And thinking itself is a type of action. The purpose of life may be thinking but more important is acting upon thought. Thus even if thought often becomes exhausted, the scholar can fall back upon the elemental forces of nature. Thinking compliments action. The scholar is in no way ‘smaller’ than the man of action.


Emerson now turns to the duties of the scholar. In considering his duty, Emerson also sympathizes with the scholar’s denials and difficulties which accompany his responsibility. He sees and feels for the world and thus ignores his personal wishes and desires in favor of public work. He is a man ‘who raises himself above private considerations and lives on public and illustrious thoughts’. The scholar must preserve and communicate heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse and the conclusions of history. Whatever new judgments are pronounced by reason on the passing men and events of the present, he will hear them and propagate them so that they are also cared for by others.


Merton Sealts in his “Emerson on the Scholar” remarks that ‘The American Scholar illustrates a threefold logical development in its progression. This involves the principles of intellection, action and utterance or dissemination. It is also evident in his essays on ‘Art and Literature’ or later essay ‘Address on Education’: ‘The principle of action… as the final expression of production of intellection or the creative process’. As a writer and a speaker, the scholar actually illustrates a third or public stage of development; from reception, moves to intellection and ends in utterance or expression/creation. By doing this he is carrying out his duties to the society. He speaks for society and speaks to society.


The scholar assumes a mythic character by reflecting the consciousness of the race/nation. We see in Emerson a mythopoeic tendency in designing the character and spirit of the scholar. Scholars should be free and brave. The source of his confidence remains hidden and inscrutable. The common people try to identify themselves with the poet-hero who voices the aspirations of these people, who sacrifice and suffer so that the principles of justice are upheld. Emerson attempts to unfold the American myth—the myth of the individual.


It is generally regretted that the present age is the age of reflection. Emerson interrogates the idea and avers that it is no evil to be critical and to try to see into the heart of things. It is good to cast away blindness and see things clearly through introversion. Interestingly, introversion is always associated with doubt. Nineteenth century America re-presents an age of reflection and doubt, an urge for revaluation or rejection of tradition. Emerson has observed that the lower class in society is given more and more importance in arts and literature. It is a sign of new vigor. Emerson is speaking for a democratization of society by bringing about a revolution in literary taste. Emerson falls back upon such men of genius like Emanuel Swedenborg—a Swedish philosopher, religious and mystic writer. Swedenborg tried to prove that the universe has a spiritual structure. Man through acts of love and wisdom try to perceive and attain a place in the divine system. He concludes that literature in America will one-day gain pride of face. He appeals for self-reliance and searches for a true American identity. His definition of scholar, therefore, becomes the definition of America’s literary and cultural independence.


The prime impulse behind Emerson’s acceptance of the invitation to speak to the Phi Beta Kappa audience was to launch an attack on books, academies and all institutions inherited from the past. “Books are for the scholar’s idle times”. For when a man ‘can read God directly the hour is too precious to be wasted on other men’s transcripts of their readings’.


Put negatively, Emerson’s is a case against books and the past; put positively, however, he is once again asserting the essential originality and timeliness of truly creative scholarship. The unifying theme of the earlier journal entries became the central message of the oration: original creation is the true function of the scholar and the sure testament of his genius. “To create, to create” is ultimately “the proof of divine presence”.


Emerson’s view of the creative process has powerful religious overtones: “Whoever creates is God”. Creation is always the style and act of men of genius, in whom the good human soul speaks because it has something new to say.


It is this creative impulse that unmistakably identifies Emerson’s ‘True Scholar’, his recurrent image for ‘the ideal of Man’. As ‘Man Thinking’ the scholar must be neither traditional nor imitative nor merely nationalistic, but truly original.


The final and definitive statement of ‘The American Scholar’ becomes:


“The one thing in the world, of value is the active soul, which first sees truth and then utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius”.

By his very creativity the scholar thus defines himself, as Emerson did in writing “The American Scholar’’; to function as man’s ‘active soul’ is to carry out the essential duty and discipline of his inspired office.

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